Defending champs return mix of experience, youth

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Naysha Trent scored 19 points in Saturday’s game against Copiague.

The confetti has long been swept away, the parade over and the awards all collected.

There was plenty of celebrating for the Riverhead girls basketball team after last year’s memorable run to the New York State semifinals, the first in program history. The Blue Waves captivated the community during a 23-win season that finally came to end with a loss to Penfield in Troy, N.Y.

With two of the top three players from last year’s now team in college, along with a few other key players, the Blue Waves return a mix of experience and youth this year.

And while the Blue Waves may not be as talented as a year ago, coach David Spinella has been enjoying the new season just as much as last year.

“The kids are great,” he said. “Last year it was a lot of scrimmages and games. This year I get to roll the sleeves up. I love that part of it.”

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Shanice Allen drives to the basket against Copiague Saturday.

Spinella said it’s like another classroom. With a younger group this season Spinella’s gotten more of a chance to be a teacher on the court.

While the Blue Waves lost two of their top three players from last year, senior Shanice Allen returns after a superb junior season in which she surpassed 1,000 career points in a playoff win over Hauppauge.

A slasher who excels at getting to the hoop, Allen has improved her jump shot this year to add another dimension to her game, Spinella said. Allen played extensively during the summer in AAU and recently signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Pace next year.

Spinella said he’s already seen a more consistent shot from Allen, who can knock down the 3-pointer while also hitting pull-up jumpers.

“She’s doing a real nice job helping transition a lot of the younger kids,” Spinella said.

The Blue Waves also got back a key player who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. Naysha Trent, a guard who’s also a slasher and rebounder, led the Blue Waves with 19 points in a loss against Copiague Saturday.

Trent and Allen will both help handle the ball as Spinella will call on a seventh-grader to run the point. Kim Ligon, the youngest player on varsity under Spinella’s tenure, has earned the starting point guard position and will look to follow in the shoes of Jalyn Brown, who now suits up for LIU Post. Even Brown only came up to varsity as an eighth-grader.

The biggest adjustment so far for Ligon has been the speed of the game, Spinella said.

“She’s smart and wants to learn more,” Spinella said. “For her, the biggest thing is the game needs to slow down.”

Spinella said he’s known Ligon since she was in 3rd grade. She’s already taken a big role, playing about 55 out of 64 minutes in the Blue Waves’ first two games, Spinella said.

Ligon also plays field hockey and softball, although her varsity debuts will have to wait a little longer in those sports.

“Get used to her name,” Spinella said.

The Blue Waves will also start a freshman at center in Sam Dunn. Spinella said Dunn is a big, strong athletic player who will help the Blue Waves down low.

“She’s very aggressive defensively and rebounds well,” he said.

A key returnee is senior forward  Jocelin Zaneski. She’s in her third year on varsity. Spinella said Zaneski is a hard worker who brings a calming presence with her on the floor.

The Blue Waves have two athletic track stars coming off their bench in juniors Kyra Braunskill and Destiny McElroy. Both are guards.

One downside for Riverhead so far this season was the loss of sophomore Katie McKillop. She tore her ACL during the summer, Spinella said, and will miss the entire year for all three sports she plays. McKillop came off the bench last year for Riverhead and played some key minutes. She’s been on varsity since eighth grade.

McKillop will stay with the team throughout this season, attending practices when she’s not doing physical therapy.

Rounding out the Blue Waves’ roster are: senior Denise Brunskill, freshman Dezrae Brown and juniors Shakiyla Sykes, Carolyn Carrera and Gabby Green.

Riverhead will compete in League III again this season. North Babylon appears to be the favorite to start. East Islip, Centereach and Smithtown West should all be improved.

The Blue Waves played a grueling non-league schedule last year that paid off and they’ve taken a similar road this season. Riverhead lost its season opener by 30 points to Walt Whitman, a team will contend for the county crown. The Blue Waves then lost to Copiague in a closer game against a team that is favored to win League IV.

“We definitely have a lot to work on, but we’re getting better,” Spinella said.

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